On January 23, 1924, Carrie Buck’s foster parents had committed her to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded, saying she was virtually a mental nine year old at the age of seventeen. Soon afterwards she gave birth to a child, which her foster parents claimed was the result of immorality. A petition was filed for forced sterilization.
At this time, eugenics, a word first coined by Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, was popular. It was the idea of keeping the gene pools clean in society by being certain those deemed “unfit” were stopped from pro-creating. In the petition to have Buck sterilized, the superintendent of the asylum said she had a mental age of nine and represented a threat to society. There was a law in place allowing forced sterilization, and this would be its first test.
While the case was going on, the superintendent died and Dr. John Bell took it up. Sterilization had been ordered, and Buck’s guardian fought it in the courts. The case went to the Supreme Court. The argument made was that unless all similarly situated people were treated the same way, Buck could not be sterilized under the 14th amendment to the Constitution.
During the time of forced sterilization, over 65,000 people were forcibly sterilized across America. It was later discovered in Carrie Buck’s case that her pregnancy was the result of rape, not immorality, and her foster parents had had her admitted to the asylum to preserve their reputation. It was claimed that Carrie’s mother was a mental eight year old.
On May 2nd, 1927, the Supreme Court, led by Oliver Wendell Holmes in an 8 to 1, ruled against Carrie:
1. The Virginia statute providing for the sexual sterilization of inmates of institutions supported by the State who shall be found to be afflicted with an hereditary form of insanity or imbecility, is within the power of the State under the Fourteenth Amendment. P. 274 U. S. 207.
2. Failure to extend the provision to persons outside the institutions named does not render it obnoxious to the Equal Protection Clause. P. 274 U. S. 208.
It further stated:
We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
Because of the case sterilization grew in America. As for Carrie Buck, to prevent the rest of the family from having children, her sister was sterilized without her own knowledge when she was in the hospital for another reason. She was not told what had happened, and would not find out for many years why she afterwards could not have children. The daughter Carrie had already had turned out to be a good student at school, and far from stupid. However, the little girl died at age eight from trouble in her intestines. Although the last forced sterilization case was in 1981, Buck v. Bell has never been overturned.
Andrew C. Abbott